Anxiety, is it contagious?

Coronavirus is spreading in our communities. 164 people with the virus at the time of writing; the biggest increase in a single day so far and there has been a second death. People are being quarantined by force in some countries and European cities and the phrase ‘social distancing’ is becoming an everyday term. This is enough to cause some measure of anxiety in the most robust and resilient of people. Many are trying to cope with their anxiety by the bulk-buying of food, tissues and hand sanitisers. You may think that these are reasonable and understandable responses to the situation. However, we are social creatures and if you see your neighbour doing those things you are likely to be influenced by that and be nudged into doing the same yourself. As this leads to shortages on the supermarket shelves, the anxiety of would-be customers grows greater. This is how community hysteria grows and spreads as effectively as a virus.

Why you may ask, is the media so focussed on the dangers of this virus when we also know that seasonal flu has typically caused far more fatalities on an annual basis? I think the difference here is that it is a new virus and that we are, as a species, more anxious about what we don’t know, about uncertainty, than of something that we do know something about. Plus, being a new virus, there isn’t any vaccination available to protect us against it, or treatment to cure it. This increases our sense of vulnerability. We are faced with something that we are helpless to fight with our technologies. In these circumstances, the dictum to ‘keep calm and carry on’ is a challenge for many who struggle to stay calm in the face of adversity.

What is health anxiety?

So, it’s a challenge for the mentally healthy but for those with health anxiety it is something that may well tip them over the edge into a state of mental illness. So, what is health anxiety? It’s a term to describe the following attitudes and behaviours. Firstly, someone with health anxiety spends a lot of time scanning their bodies, they are acutely sensitive to noticing anything out of the ordinary.

Secondly, whatever is noticed is then interpreted in a catastrophic manner. A new twinge in the leg is felt and then the person interprets that as a sign of something far more sinister, perhaps DVT. For most people, a twinge is noticed as just that and the person doesn’t dwell on it or try to interpret it in any way. It is accepted as a transitory sensation and the thought, if there is one, is likely to be along the lines of ‘it’s uncomfortable, if it persists I’ll give it more attention’ and then it is largely ignored.

If a person has health anxiety the process is different, the discomfort is amplified with the concentrated focus on it and with the onset of negative and catastrophic interpretations of its meaning, they are much more likely to feel that they must seek medical attention. These are people who GPs often categorise as  ‘frequent attenders’ and understandably, but also, unfortunately, they aren’t the most popular patients in an already stretched healthcare system.

If you suffer from health anxiety you will benefit far more from a psychological intervention than a medical one. The problem you have is that you are suffering from elevated anxiety as a result of your thinking style in relation to your physical body.

The problem is psychological, not medical

At this time of widespread concern about Covid-19, it is particularly difficult for those with health anxiety who are seeking reassurance, wherever they can find it. Because, for them, this is something that could seriously affect their mental health and cause great emotional distress.

As with all anxiety disorders, they could benefit greatly with some help in learning how to relax their bodies and their minds. It is possible to learn how to challenge the unrealistic and catastrophic thoughts that only serve to increase anxiety. There may well be experiences in their personal history that have predisposed them to health anxiety and these too may be understood and resolved if they are willing to access a psychological therapy instead of a medical investigation.

A professional counsellor can provide psychological therapy to help with anxiety. Use our search tool to find a counsellor near you.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Karen Derber, HCPC registered Counselling Psychologist

I'm an experienced (20+ years) counsellor, having worked with a broad range of difficulties. In the NHS between 2003 and 2013, I developed a specialist interest in Health Psychology and the psychological consequences of living with a long-term health condition.… Read more

Written by Karen Derber, HCPC registered Counselling Psychologist

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